World  War One And The British Selection In Africa

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At the beginning of  World War One , British  Army banned short people  from  serving.  The ban also applied in its regiments in the British empire such  as the Kings African  Rifles in Africa.


Throughout  history tall soldiers have often been prized . King Frederick l , recruited giants for his Potsdam Grenadier guards. In Africa the British  recruited the likes of Mulinge and Idi Amin Dada because  of their imposing heights to serve  in the Kings African Rifles .


When World War l broke out, the  minimum height of joining  the army was 5ft 3in. Thousands  of men who wanted to fight in the war were turned away at recruitment centres.


Things began changing  when one man in the North of England who had been rejected for being too short got annoyed and  decided to fight  anyone to prove that height did not matter on the battlefield.


His local MP heard about his frustration  and wrote  to the War Office requesting  for short people to be allowed to serve.  The War Office agreed  but on condition   that  short men should  have their own battalions called “Bantam Battalions”.


Soon 3000, men who had been barred from the army  were selected  to join these special  battalions. By the end of World War l, 29 Bantam battalions with a total of 30,000 short soldiers  had been raised in the British Army. These Special British Army  battalions only existed in Britain  and Canada.

World  War One And The British Selection In Africa


These  short soldiers  ,however, gained the reputation  of  being too aggressive  and quarrelsome. Around Scotland  they became known as the Devil dwarfs because  of their frequent bar brawls. One author writing about the Bantam battalions said: “Their quarrelsome reputation  was legendary.”


Scholars describe  it as the Napoleon Complex, the syndrome where pint-sized men overcompensate for their lack of stature with blustering self-importance, jealousy and aggression. It is named after Napoleon who was one of the greatest military  leaders despite his height, and was also short tempered.


Stalin was also said to suffer from “Napoleon Complex” as did Mussolini and Attila the Hun.


In the British  Army the performance  of Bantams (short soldiers) on the battlefield  was mixed.  One commanding officer said ” For all their recalcitrance, they had proved to be readily trained into smart soldiers on the barrack Square  and assault course.


He cited a raid on a German trench by the Bantams  in June 1916  that resulted in the death  of 30 Germans and the capture of Maxim  heavy machine  gun.


However,  the battle of Somme really brough into question  the morale, physical  abilities and the credibility  of the Bantams.  During  the battle 26 Bantams were sentenced to death for being cowards and for  abandoning  their defence posts when war became intense.


The end of the battle  marked the end of the experiment  on whether  short people  were capable  of serving in the military.  The Bantams  were re-examined  by medical experts  and those viewed  as fit to serve  were merged with regular units to serve alongside  tall men.


Surprisingly  when the Bantams  were mixed with regular  soldiers , the success rate on the battlefield  climbed  to 60%  in the Hundred Days offensive of 1918.


After  the war, many Bantams were transferred to tunnelling  and tank units  where being short was an advantage.


Today short soldiers serve in the militaries all over the word  and  have proved to be effective  just as their tall colleagues.


In a marching  formation, they  are normally  used as markers, I.e they are not placed in the middle but at the extreme end. The same applies  to very tall soldiers .

Odhiambo Levin Opiyo is a Reseacher  and Historian, write from Nairobi , Republic of Kenya .


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